by Peter Tracy
It’s not often that we stop for a while to enjoy the simpler things in life: a juicy orange, for example, or a Haydn String Quartet. For composer, violinist, and vocalist Caroline Shaw, these moments taken to stop and reflect are important sources of inspiration. Even a sparse, elegant image of an orange can turn into “a celebration of the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, every day, familiar thing.”
On her collaborative album with the Attacca Quartet, Orange, Shaw invites us to pause for a bit of thought about the familiar forms of both plants and string quartets, resulting in an album that is as vibrant and colorful as any garden.
Best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Partita for 8 Voices, Shaw is something of a musical polymath: as a vocalist in Roomful of Teeth, violinist with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, award-winning composer, and wide-ranging collaborator, Shaw has proven herself to be an artist and musician who is wonderfully difficult to pin down.
This is certainly the case in her newest album collaboration, which consists of six works for string quartet written over roughly the past ten years. Here, you can find much of the same deconstruction of classical forms found in her Partita for 8 Voices, but using a musical language tailored to the quirks and traditions of the string quartet.
The album begins with Entr’acte, a warping extension of the traditional minuet and trio form. After opening with dramatically swelling and pulsing chords, the music seems to wind its way into some more unfamiliar territory, eventually growing to include harmonics, unpitched brushing of the bow, and pizzicato. Throughout, Shaw continues to weave in and deconstruct more traditional sequences, harmonies, and chord progressions in fresh and sometimes startling ways.
Rather than a classical form, the next piece celebrates the form of the humble Valencia orange. Bright, arpeggiated harmonics and pizzicato open Valencia, but the music quickly loses stability as glissandos and powerful chordal swells are added to the texture. Shaw describes her use of “somewhat viscous chords and melodies” in this brief work, which could find parallels in the bold tanginess of an orange’s taste. At its core, though, it is a celebration of the rounded, brightly colored curves of this simple and abundant food.
The longest piece on the album, Plan and Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks), is a five-movement meditation on a different natural landscape: the sprawling garden at Dumbarton Oaks, where Shaw spent time as a musician in residence. Here, Shaw draws inspiration from fixtures of the estate, such as a stately beech tree or the sunlit orangery. In the second movement, Shaw quotes passages from classic quartet repertoire, such as Ravel and Mozart, cutting out and reinterpreting this older material alongside segments of her own work much like you might arrange a bouquet of flowers. The final movement begins with strummed chords in the cello and chirping, high-pitched pizzicatos from the violins before growing to include dramatic sustained harmonies. Eventually, the rest of the quartet fades away to leave a violinist quietly strumming the same contemplative chords, like a bird singing at twilight.
In the next three pieces, Shaw continues to find inspiration in classic forms and music of the past. Punctum, which Shaw calls “an exercise in nostalgia,” is a winding, sequence-filled exploration of what happens when classical techniques and harmonic progressions are used in a fragmented, non-classical way. Her 16-minute string quartet Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a deconstructs the classical ritornello form, in which a musical idea continues to return with little digressions in between. In Shaw’s reimagining, a simple musical idea begins the piece before being warped and spun through passages featuring the Attacca Quartet playing wild, fluttering harmonics and glissandos, striking the string with the wood of the bow, and droning on powerful, open chords.
Limestone and Felt finishes off the album by drawing inspiration from both the warm resonance and cold stone features of a cavernous gothic chapel, making for a piece that is by turns percussive and plucky or resonant and contemplative.
Much like the rest of Shaw’s wide-ranging work as a musician, Orange draws on a variety of techniques, traditions, and forms. Certain themes, though, continue to inspire and tie these pieces together, such as the order, simplicity, and beauty of nature or the forms and ideals of our musical traditions. On Orange, Shaw and the Attacca Quartet find elegance and charm in both the humble orange and the well-loved music of the past, inviting us to discover something new amid the familiar.